Friday, December 06, 2013
In England, priests, vicars and other religious authorities are generally not trusted and seen as out of touch. In the United States, a majority of Catholics consider their ecclesiastical authorities to be out of touch with their views. Whatever the church needs right now for its witness to have impact on the world, apparently it's not another "leader." By "leader" I mean people with positional authority, with whatever vestments and titles and ordination qualifications a particular denomination or tradition requires. But I also mean people who assume authority--people who, in taking responsibility for some aspect of the church's mission, simultaneously assume power that they don't need over people who don't need another authority figure in their lives. I'm pretty conscious of the fact that this sounds like yet another Gen-X rant against authority. And we can see how that turned out for Gen X. (Remember us?) I'm reminded of an insight from the great John Cougar Mellencamp: "I fight authority; authority always wins." But most of my rants against authority are particular and situational; I'm frustrated by a particular expression of authority under specific circumstances. This here is something more philosophical, more circumspect. The last thing anyone would expect of a church would be to eschew power, to lay down authority, to accept the influence of some powerless other. Who, for example, would expect to see a senior pastor yield the pulpit to a theologically untrained layperson, even a visitor who hasn't yet cut a check to the building campaign? Who would expect a church's business meeting to be conducted without a prior agenda, with the head elder yielding the floor to any and all comers? Who would expect a church to go to a village board or neighborhood council meeting and just sit and listen--maybe pray quietly a little? Strategically, these sorts of zig-zags would unsettle people's presumptions about the general posture of people in religious leadership. But there's another value to these moves: authority figures in the church might learn something new. They might be reminded that they don't somehow, magically, have all the answers to life's toughest questions tucked away in their sportcoat's breast pocket with their tiny little Bible. They might be reminded that they're human, like everyone else, and not required by God or anybody to be the final word on anything. They might reimagine the role of the church as humble witness to the faithfulness of God in Christ, who saves even wretches like me. Just a thought.Do with it what you will.
Thursday, November 28, 2013
My friend Nathan Baker-Lutz put together this delightful little video that playfully debunks the mental picture most of us have about Thanksgiving. I hope you'll enjoy watching it with your family sometime on Thanksgiving day - maybe even make it an annual tradition. Not only will you be entertained by it, it will also challenge some fallacious thinking that surrounds the holiday. We have these contrived mental pictures, I think, mainly because Thanksgiving has become marketable and merchandisable, and such things require oversimplification: iconic images and caricatured characters. Hence the black outfits and belt buckles, for example, or even the forks and turkeys (which would not have been the main course; waterfowl are easier to kill). Moreover, cultural touchpoints like Thanksgiving allow us to mythologize ourselves, recasting the past to make ourselves feel better about our present. So, for example, we (and by "we" I mean people like me, who trace our lineage back to Europe) remember our Pilgrim ancestors as reaching out to the Native Americans: a convenient image of the brotherhood of man and other self-congratulatory colonialist virtues. (Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!) In reality, it turns out, there's no record of the Pilgrims inviting the Native Americans to the first Thanksgiving, although there is some record of them being in attendance. They may, it turns out, have invited themselves. The First Thanksgiving by Robert Tracy McKenzie - is not so much about Thanksgiving as it is about how we approach history. Thanksgiving is a case study equipping us to consider the past more responsibly, which in turn equips us to more responsibly engage our present and future. So, if McKenzie's book is a Thanksgiving feast, the holiday itself is just the stuffing; the discipline of history is turkey (or goose), mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie.
Friday, November 22, 2013
I like flash mobs. Not the ones that steal your iPhone, of course, but the ones that speak truth to power or offer a moment of entertainment to an unsuspecting crowd. The best flash mobs do both, actually--they're entertaining and truth-telling at the same time. They might even steal your iPhone to make a point. Here's a good one that took place in Grand Central Station in New York, put on by Improv Everywhere. The best flash mobs I've come across are not those I've experienced first hand. My favorite is set at Christmastime, when a handbell choir gradually assembles around a Salvation Army bell ringer to transform his annoying ring into something transcendent. But right up there next to it is the cash mob. A cash mob is when a group of people prearrange to descend on a purveyor of some good or service with their business. National Record Store Day is a kind of cash mob, although it's specific to an industry rather than a particular shop. I first read of cash mobs when a small, family-owned hardware store was found to be planning to close due to business lost to the big boxes, and area residents decided not to wait till the closeout sales to bring the store some business. Rather than conducting themselves as vultures, residents renewed their commitment to the store and its owners. Who knows how long that commitment actually lasted, but it certainly was unusual enough to make the newspapers that week. What I like about cash mobs is that they recognize that our consumer activity is fundamentally moral and personal; it's culture-shaping no matter how unconsciously we approach it. Such is life in the twenty-first century that more of us are consumers than producers, and so our responsible participation in the life of our community is, as much as anything, a matter of how we spend our money. But we're besieged with invitations and enticements to imagine that our money has nothing to do with our community, nothing to do with our neighbors. So we buy from Home Depot and WalMart and Amazon, understanding (rightly) that real people work for those institutions but failing to recognize that those institutions' commitment to us and our neighbors could only ever be mercenary. They are too big to care--too remote and diffuse, with their accountabilities directed to shareholders spread throughout the world, to bother being concerned whether even their own store in your community, with all its employees, lives or dies. So I'd like to propose that we care in their place. This holiday season, I propose that we commit ourselves afresh to our neighbors, that we emulate the loving act of God moving into our neighborhood through the birth of Christ by moving our money into the coffers of shops and service professionals who have themselves forsaken the convenience and ease of becoming a cog in a multinational machine and instead rooted themselves in your place, for your time. I'd like to propose . . . The Four Cash Mobs of Christmas! Here's how my friends and I envision this working: 1. Conspire with a few other people. It might be your family over Thanksgiving dinner, or your friends over Facebook, or members of your church during a boring sermon. Ten to twenty people would be good; twenty to fifty would be wild. My coworkers and I are hovering around seven now, with a few other prospects waiting in the wings. 2. Brainstorm four local, non-franchised businesses that would be blessed and not cursed by a sudden blast of business during the holiday season. 3. Make a schedule. Advent 2013 begins December 1 and ends December 24, so there's plenty of time to make it happen. My coworkers and I will be doing it on our lunch break or at the end of four workdays. 4. Commit to each person spending at least $10 per business on each business's allotted days. This was a sticking point for me and my friends, especially when we were thinking of this as the Twelve Cash Mobs of Christmas. So we made the dollar amount optional. In any case, depending on the store, the goal of giving a business your business might best be met by pooling your money. For example, maybe you and your neighbors could all go in together on a shared snow blower, bought from your local small-motor mechanic. 5. Go and do. Feel free to recruit more conspirators for each cash mob. Anyway, that's my idea. It's not perfect--we live under the shadow a multinational economic oligarchy, and establishing an independent alternative economy is nigh on impossible. But at least it's local, and it's personal. It might even be entertaining. I suppose it'll be whatever you make it--which is, I suppose, the definition of a conspiracy. In the meantime, here's video of Guerrilla Handbell Strikeforce, my favorite flash mob, and one of my favorite ways of invoking the season that is now nearly upon us.
Tuesday, November 19, 2013
I'm surprised by how short the Gettysburg address is. Two-hundred-seventy-eight words--that's about the length of back cover copy on a standard trade book. (I write the equivalent of about twenty Gettysburg addresses a year.) It barely exceeds what Susan Gunelius says is the minimum length of a blog post for search-engine optimization. It is just over half the length of President Roosevelt's request for a declaration of war against Japan, about a fifth of the length of President Kennedy's inaugural address, and about .0005 times the length of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. Funny what you can do with under three hundred words. I find it ironic that Lincoln here suggests that "the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here," arguing instead that it's the battle itself that will continue to captivate the popular imagination. And I suppose that's true: Gettysburg draws over a million visitors a year. But it's the Gettysburg address that's carved in stone in the Lincoln Memorial. It's the address we celebrate today. Here it is.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.